'That's Not How You Shoot to Kill,' ex-IDF Officer Says at Azaria Trial

Testifying on behalf of so-called Hebron shooter, former Gaza division commander describes him as 'cool-headed' and 'reasonable' in his behavior.

Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger
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Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai, right, with defendant Elor Azaria in the Jaffa Military Court, Sept. 27, 2016.
Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai, right, with defendant Elor Azaria in the Jaffa Military Court, Sept. 27, 2016.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Yotam Berger
Yotam Berger

Sgt. Elor Azaria's decision to shoot a wounded Palestinian in Hebron in March seems to have been a rational one, Brig. Gen. (res.) Shmuel Zakai testified Tuesday in the Jaffa Military Court. The former commander of the Israel Defense Forces Gaza division added that the fact that soldiers had been called in to “secure” the scene shows that the threat of a booby-trapped terrorist was real.

Zakai was testifying on behalf of the defense at the trial of Azaria, who has been charged with manslaughter.

The former officer, who also served as commander of the Golani Brigade, asserted that the fact that Azaria decided to shoot the Palestinian assailant, Abdel Fattah al-Sharif, was legitimate, as the soldier’s intention at the time was to eliminate any possible danger in the area. After having watched video footage of the incident, Zakai said he believed that the decision to open fire at Sharif was not a rash one.

Zakai added that he has seen “people who shoot to kill, with the desire to kill. I’m glad to say that all of these people I’ve seen are not IDF soldiers. And I have also seen, and carried out myself, shooting for the purpose of removing a threat. [The shooting as seen on the video] is not the way you shoot when you want to shoot to kill. When you want to shoot to kill, you shoot at the center of the mass. The desire to kill is evident on the shooter’s face. This shooting looks like someone doing it carefully and deliberately in order to eliminate a threat.”

According to his analysis of the footage, Zakai told the court, “the defendant appears very much under control. Even when he turns to his comrade, he doesn’t display any physical movements that look hysterical or erratic or that indicate that he is agitated. He is cool-headed and acts in a reasonable manner. I did not see anything unusual in this conduct.”

The former officer also noted that, “From what I saw of the shooting, I did not notice anything I could point to that indicates he fired out of emotional turmoil or out of some sense of wanting to kill just for the sake of it. In his body language, in the actions that he performs – he is level-headed. There is nothing hysterical or extreme in his behavior.”

Zakai added that the fact that other soldiers were tasked with “securing” the area around Sharif, who was by that time lying on the ground, shows that there was a real chance that the man was booby-trapped – and this was not just an imagined fear in Azaria’s head.

“If an officer decides to assign someone to be guarded like this, to give a soldier this kind of specific task, it’s a sign that the officer at least has some concern about the matter," Zakai testified. "Here there was an officer, a platoon commander, who gave a specific order to a soldier. So there was a real concern.”

When he finished his testimony, Zakai went over to Azaria and spoke with him. Afterward, he told reporters: “I believe in the IDF’s values. I believe in the court, in the army's commanders and their ability to draw the necessary lessons from different events. At the same time, based on the testimony that I have heard and the videos that I have seen, it is my view that the soldier’s action was within the realm of reasonable action during an operative mission, and there is no basis for charging him with manslaughter.

"I also want to say," said Zakai, "that I am deeply opposed to the personal attacks against the prosecutor. I am confident that the court will make the right decision.”

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